Should you avoid sex before a workout?

Both Muhammed Ali and Mike Tyson supposedly swore off sex in the weeks leading up to fights. And there's that infamous scene in Rocky when Mick tells Rock to “lay off that pet shop dame” because “women weaken legs.”

But even though you've probably heard that abstinence boosts performance before a competition, this idea has always had its detractors. Ronda Rousey, for instance, famously said she has “as much sex as possible” before a fight.

So who’s right? Well, a new study weighs in on Rousey’s side of the debate. Sex before competition or a big workout isn't just verboten - it may actually boost your performance.

In the study, researchers asked a group of 12 men to perform lower body exercises the morning after they’d either had sex or had taken a night off from sexual activity. “This night-before design was to mimic the timeframe that some athletes may face,” says Todd Astorino, PhD, coauthor of the study and a professor of kinesiology at California State University, San Marcos.

Astorino and his colleagues found that sex had no effect on the men’s ability to perform the weight training movements. During five sets of two lower-body exercises, both peak and average performance held steady regardless of whether a man had had sex the night before.

While the study was admittedly very small, “our data would suggest that sex does not impair muscle force when performed within 12 hours of a gym workout,” Astorino says. But there's a caveat, he adds: “at the world class level, athletes win and lose by very small margins.” Whether or not sex could subtly influence a competitor’s performance is a difficult nail to hammer down. (Pun intended.)

Additional research on the subject of pre-competition sex sheds a little more light on the debate.

“There are thoughts that testosterone levels may change before and after sex, and this can alter things like mood as well as performance,” Astorino says.

One 2003 study from China, for instance, found that a man’s testosterone levels remain relatively steady in the days after an ejaculation. But if he can hold out for a full week, his T levels can jump by almost 45% on his seventh day of abstinence. (Testosterone levels do not, however, continue to climb after that day-seven peak, the authors of that study say.) Meanwhile, a similar study found no such jump in T among men who abstained, and in fact found testosterone tends to be slightly elevated after sex.

As if mixed results like those weren’t frustrating enough, experts also point out that every sport is different.

A comprehensive 2016 review of all the existing studies on sex and athletic performance found a lot of conflicting data and a general lack of evidence on performance in the context of different types of competition. “Given the variety of sports, and their different metabolic and situational differences, generalization is not possible,” the authors of that review say.

What to make of all this? Whatever you want. It doesn’t seem to matter much whether an athlete gets it on before competition - as long as he doesn’t have extremely strenuous sex right before a match.

So if you feel like sex relaxes you and helps you focus during competition, feel free to get busy. Or if you think abstaining helps you stay aggressive, go ahead and skip sex. There’s not enough evidence today to suggest switching up your pre-game routines.

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